The 49ers prepare for their final preseason game against the Raiders Sunday. Head coach Kyle Shanahan said the starters would play most of the first half. Final cuts are around the corner, making this game the final try-out for several players.
We look at players with the most at stake below,
Receiver battle still alive
Richie James Jr. suffered a knee injury that requires surgery. James was on thin ice and is replaced by River Cracraft. Now, the sixth receiver battle is narrowed down to Nsimba Webster and Travis Benjamin.
Benjamin is entering his ninth year in the NFL. He sat out last year, but he should be the clear lock to make the team over Webster with James going down. Benjamin can magnify the receiver group if he becomes a consistent deep threat.
Travis Benjamin working from the slot in the slant wheel concept. pic.twitter.com/3Smy7i1Iko— Xavier Dixon (@GOOBVILLE) August 28, 2021
Trey Lance hit Benjamin in stride for a touchdown across the middle last week. San Francisco requires someone to threaten the defense vertically. You can see examples of Benjamin doing that in the video above. Benjamin performs the stutter release, and Philip Rivers lays the ball in the basket.
We saw Lance throw with touch when he hit the honey hole against Cover 6. Then, of course, Trent Sherfield was on the receiving end of another explosive play. Benjamin has the ability to get behind the defense as well. It’s time for him to get some explosive plays too.
Webster gashed the defense on the end around (below) just after he returned a kick for 43 yards. The most glaring thing with Webster is he is yet to catch a pass in an NFL regular-season game. Brandon Aiyuk is also expected to miss the game. So we will see Shanahan give Webster more pass-catching opportunities early on.
Hurd has been a mystery constantly in camp because he hasn’t practiced enough, let alone proven much in practice. However, general manager John Lynch told KNBR that Hurd would make the team “if he can be out there.”
Hurd couldn’t fully perform during individual drills this past week during practice, which was concerning. Meaning he probably isn't ready to play. San Francisco has given Hurd plenty of chances, and they don't intend on stopping.
Who will be the starting SAM linebacker?
Defensive starters will play, so expect Fred Warner to make a special play early. Azeez Al-Shaair was seen in a blue non-contact jersey in practice. His status is unknown for the game. Dre Greenlaw is out, so expect Jonas Griffth and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles to start with Warner. Leaving Marcell Harris, Elijah Sullivan, and Justin Hilliard as potential cuts.
Harris has the best chance to edge out a roster spot. However, he is on the outside looking in as far as roster projections. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans called Harris a playmaker who is always around the ball.
idk about Harris being the hole defender in cov1 pic.twitter.com/YgMpXYIgIj— Xavier Dixon (@GOOBVILLE) August 16, 2021
Harris getting beat outside in man coverage above and below.
Playing with linebacker-like tenacity together with unacceptable coverage struggles is the reason Harris was moved from safety to linebacker. The coverage issues continued in the loss versus Kansas City (clips above), but he had better reps against the pass last week.
Harris makes the play on the check down (above). Again, you can see the physicality he brings.
Sullivan and Hilliard were both practice squad projections when I looked at the linebacker core. When Al-Shaair gets healthy, it will strengthen the linebacker group. He played well at SAM last season. Greenlaw’s injury isn't deemed major, but if it lingers, we could see a lot more Griffith throughout the season.
Wayne Gallman or JaMycal Hasty?
The running back room is pretty interesting. We know Raheem Mostert, Kyle Juszczyk, and Trey Sermon are locks. However, Elijah Mitchell should make the team, and he finally gets his first piece of preseason action against the Raiders after battling an abductor strain. Mitchell was one of the players I wanted to see against the Chiefs.
That leaves Wayne Gallman and JaMycal Hasty to fight for the last spot.
.@49ers @waynegallman is EXCELLENT in pass protection. He attacks the defenders under control and initiates contact. This is a clinic for all running backs. #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/sSUirEN1kV— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) August 23, 2021
Gallman was impressive in pass protection in the win against the Chargers. However, the running back room has needed a better pass-catcher, and Gallman hasn't shown he can do that. In addition, Gallman hasn’t done much to separate himself from the group other than pass protection.
Hasty has great vision, and you will see him bounce it outside often (example above.) Protecting the ball will continue to be on Hasty’s to-do list. Hasty can make plays running and receiving. He can become another undrafted RB gem that Shanahan has found.
I left the quarterback play out of this because Shanahan seems to have already made his mind up on who is starting. It will be shameful if Lance isn’t named the starter.
San Francisco’s pass-catchers look to have a great year. Sherfield looks to be the real deal, but the team needs another consistent wide receiver. Benjamin could revitalize his career with a big catch here and there in the regular season.
The SAM linebacker position is fair to question until Al-Shaair is healthy. Linebacker depth can be a concern when most of them are hobbled. Look for Flannigan-Fowles and Harris performances Sunday to tell where they stand in the LB group.
Gallman and Hasty is a tighter competition than some may think. San Francisco is high on Hasty, but he has had fumbling problems through his tenure. Hasty has outshined Gallman in the preseason games. Gallman needs to show he can make an explosive play running or catching the ball.